The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14
"I don't want to say anything to her," protested Sara, "I don't want to come across as judgmental. I do not know what is going on with her, or where she is spiritually. What if I do more damage than good by speaking up? I have tried to be her friend, but it feels like a one-way street because she never reciprocates or follows through of her own accord, and when I am with her it seems like she goes out of her way to be hurtful and offensive. But I do not know if she means to be…I just do not know what to say. I guess I should just back off and let her be but I do not want to do that out of anger and resentment or a judging spirit. I am SO confused. What can I do?"
If you have ever agonized over the battle between your natural instinct for self-protection and your desire to present a Christ-like witness to the people God puts in your life, people who are sometimes prickly, difficult, and hurtful, people who make you not want to make the effort to like them, then you will be able to empathize with Sara's anguish. Modern society is sold out to the idea of moral relativism, the gospel of non-absolutes. Add to that, Jesus' admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount:
"For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."(Matthew 7:2)
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)
Our human brains turn to mush trying to reconcile the two because we know that God's Truth is absolute. Yet He calls us to love one another, not judge and our culture is telling us to "live and let live", "why can't we all just get along?" Meanwhile Proverbs reminds us, "A man's discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression." (19:11) What is a Christian to make of all this seemingly irreconcilable information?
What we need to remember is that there is a distinct difference between being judgmental and exercising discernment. Let's compare how Sara might respond to her prickly acquaintance:
Response #1: Angry confrontation
"You make me so angry. You have taken advantage of me at every turn; you say mean, hurtful things about me behind my back and to my face. You are just a wicked, evil woman, a user and I do not want to be around you anymore. You have hurt me once too often and your time is up. I will not let you do this to me anymore. I do not like you. In fact, I really hate you. You are rude, inconsiderate and untrustworthy. You never follow through on anything and have let me down more times than I can count. Next time you need help, don't call me and I sure as heck won't be calling you. I want you out of my life for good. Goodbye, I won't miss you."
Not pretty, huh? Nevertheless, it is a choice Sara might make. Let's look at a second option.
Response #2: Stoic Heroic Silence of a Martyr or Gossip
(mentally, or confidentially to another friend) "She is just too much. It drains my energy to be around her but I do not want to make a scene. I will just stop calling her, emailing her and going over to her house. She probably won't even notice, she is so wrapped up in herself. She never initiates anything now so she is not going to start now! She just really burns me! She never…..I cannot believe that she…. (fill in the blanks) Well, at least that's all over, if I don't start anything, I won't have to deal with her snubs anymore. So I am just going to let it go, and have some peace. But she really has this coming….I just can't stand that attitude of hers, as if she's better than everyone else is. But I am not going to let it bother me anymore, I will just move on. But when she…..I just really…."
I am sure you notice that Sara is not really moving on in this scenario, just rehearsing all her justifications and complaints about her erstwhile acquaintance, digging herself into a pit of resentment that will eat away at her soul and interfere with her own relationship with God and family. Let's look at one more option:
Response #3: Concern
Sara: "June, I've noticed that you seem to be upset about something a lot. What is going on? Do you need help with anything that is stressing you out right now?"
June: "Well, I haven't told anyone this but my mother is not doing well. She has heart problems and is showing signs of Alzheimer's but she has no insurance or savings for a care facility. I know I should be glad to take care of her in my own home at her age, but we have never had a smooth relationship so I feel guilty about not wanting to ask her to come live with us, even though I know it is the right thing to do. On top of that, Jansen is really struggling in school and with Don out of work, we do not have the money to hire a tutor, and I do not know how to help him. I am afraid all the stress has been bringing out the worst in me and I say things I don't really mean and then I feel bad about it, which makes me even crankier. I am just overwhelmed and I feel like I am in this downward spiral. Not to mention with everything else that is going on, I am not praying and reading the Bible as I should and I float through Sundays in some kind of fog, not really soaking in anything God might be trying to teach me. I just feel lost."
Sara: "Oh wow, June! I had no idea. I apologize for any negative thoughts I have had about you and the hurtful things you have said. I should have asked you earlier rather than harboring resentment. Let's pray about each of your situations and then see what we can do to take off some of the stress. (Pray) For starters, you know I am a teacher. How about if I tutor Jansen…at no cost to you?" You know, God just reminded me that John and Arthur mentioned that the manufacturing plant across town is opening a new division and will be hiring at least 200 managers and workers. Isn't project management Don's specialty? He should apply. I think he would have a good chance to get in on the ground floor. John and Arthur can put in a good word for him as key clients of the plant's services. Now let's talk about your mother…."
June: Thank you Sara! I am so sorry that I said anything to hurt you and that I have been less than reliable. I've been so worried about everything and I'm afraid I let my pride get in the way of letting anyone know what was going on. I just bottled it all up and it burst at awkward moments, keeping people at bay. I know I shouldn't but…."
Sara: I know, like Paul says, I do what I do not want to do and do not do what I do want to do. We all fall into that trap sometimes. But, hey, I'll tell you what, let's call in Nancy, Anne and Josie and we will form a ring of accountability to keep us all growing spiritually. We all need to be pulled back from the brink of apathy at times. Maybe we can meet once a week for sharing, fellowship, Bible reading….and chocolate!”
June (laughing): Sounds like just what I need! I'll bring the chocolate!
The difference here is judgment vs. caring and discernment. In the first two responses, judgment said, "this is all about me, she hurt ME. I have the right to revenge, to take it out on her. I am justified in my hate. I am all right and she is all wrong so God's on MY side." In the third response, Sara uses discernment to nudge the prickles aside and find out that there is more going on here than just her own annoyance. She takes the time to see the situation from God's point of view and to get personally involved in translating God's love to another, to be God's hands here on earth to answer a prayer. In doing so, she is able to set aside her own hurt and handle the situation in accordance with 1 John 4:7-8, "Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love."
Every action we take should reflect well on the Lord that we serve in order to give glory and witness to Him alone for whatever He is doing in our lives right now. "Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. " Ephesians 5:8b-11
The challenge comes in when June's response to the concern in the last example is not quite as honest and forthcoming. Sometimes people do not react as well to concern, snubbing and marginalizing your every effort to bring healing to the situation or they deny that they have done anything wrong or hurtful, attempting to place the blame back on you for finding offense when they were "just trying to help" or give "constructive criticism." (Aside: if you are going to claim that you are giving constructive criticism, make sure that your heart and attitude are really in the right place with God about it and that the receiver actually feels constructed by it, not demolished!) A great deal of discernment and self-control are required at this point. It can be tempting when rebuffed yet again, to resort to anger, gossip or martyr-like responses.
Prayer is the best place to start. Ask God how He sees it and would have you handle the situation. There may be times that someone is just not open to reconciliation and healing or is so comfortable in their spiritual blindness that they refuse to see the Truth or admit any of their own shortcomings. There are times that God may direct you that silence is the best policy. In response to the king of Assyria's taunting message, Hezekiah instructed the people to remain silent, "But the people held their peace and answered him not a word; for the king’s commandment was, “Do not answer him." (2 Kings 18:36) Just a few verses after admonishing us not to judge others, Jesus continues, "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6) In a recent sermon, the pastor put it this way, "There is great value in the wisdom that you should not waste your time and energy trying to convince someone who does not want to be convinced of the Truth." To do so only brings ridicule to the gospel in the hearing of many who may be led astray by their concern for public approval. Seeing that the crowds are doubting and laughing at God, they join in to fit in. There is a time to be bold and a time to be silent. Only by staying in tune with the Spirit will you be able to discern the difference.
This silence however, is vastly different from the martyred seething silence in the second response. When God tells you to be silent and walk away from the situation, it is no longer about you and your hurt feelings. It is the discernment that distinguishes prayerful silence from martyrdom: "God, this one is Yours. I release whatever right I think I have to retaliation and revenge and pray only that whatever healing needs to come about for June, that you would release it in her life and bring her into the place where she can be the woman you want her to be. Help her to release all that anger, bitterness and biting tongue. I am walking away but I wish only good things for her. I wish for You to bless her and grow her beyond her wildest imagination; and if someday you want to bring us back together, I pray that I would not harbor bitterness and resentment but welcome her back as a newly refreshed sister in Christ who is on a learning journey with You just as I am. In Jesus' name, Amen.
This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11